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HUMOUR SPECIAL

Smile! You are in Limerick

Dermot Dix | Updated on July 31, 2020 Published on July 31, 2020

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The town of Limerick in Ireland may have nothing to do with the usually funny and often bawdy form of verse it shares its name with, but it does have an India connection

* After the British conquest of Bengal, General Robert Clive was given an estate in Ireland, close to Limerick

* Limerick features in Frank McCourt's bestselling memoir Angela’s Ashes

Limerick, like a number of Irish towns, was founded by the Vikings, in the 10th century. In the late 12th century it was captured by the Anglo-Normans as part of their slow conquest of Ireland (more or less complete by 1600, by which time the conquerors are referred to by historians simply as “the English”). A castle in the town (about 200km from Dublin) dates to the early 13th century and is named for King John, best known — aside from his knavish characterisation in the Robin Hood stories — for being forced by his barons to sign the Magna Carta, which limited the king’s powers and is seen as an important milestone in the development of the British constitution. Limerick was besieged in the late 1600s, which ended the war in which William of Orange defeated James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution.

Limerick has an India connection: A neo-classical mansion called Plassey House, built in the late 18th century, stands on the outskirts of the city. After the British conquest of Bengal, General Robert Clive was given an estate in Ireland, close to Limerick. The names Plassey and Palasi are used there, and the house is named to commemorate the battle. The house now belongs to the University of Limerick, and a plaque there by no means presents the battle in terms supportive of the outcome; unlike what one usually sees in similar big houses in the UK. Ireland is presented by some historians as Britain’s first colony, achieving independence in 1921; indeed, the future Indian president VV Giri spent time in Dublin during the momentous years of the independence movement, and knew a number of figures centrally involved in the Irish struggle.

Limerick is where the writer Frank McCourt and his brothers grew up. McCourt wrote the best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes, which was also turned into a film. The book vividly — some say relentlessly — presents the misery of growing up during the Depression of the 1930s in one of the poorer neighbourhoods of one of the poorer towns in Ireland. I knew Frank’s brother Alphie when I lived in New York, and met Frank and a third brother, Malachy, on one occasion, before Frank published his memoir and became a famous author overnight. Alphie ran a Mexican restaurant called Los Panchos with a partner called Ernesto (from the Dominican Republic); Alphie tended to hire the bar staff, Ernesto the wait staff. I worked for them briefly, and often socialised at the restaurant before and after my stint working there.

Frank and Alphie both presented a wry, if not dour, face to the world; Malachy, with a gleam in his eye, had an effervescent presence and a business card that described him as “raconteur”.

I met one of my closest friends, John Fox, also from Limerick, at Los Panchos; we have been friends for over 30 years. I clearly recall the day I met him. He had long, long hair, was working a shift behind the bar, and was munching from a big bunch of carrots that still had all their greenery affixed — all in all, a charmingly relaxed pose for one about to be asked to mix some complicated cocktails. He has lived in Limerick, London, Los Angeles, New York and Dublin, and, a true latter-day Renaissance Man, has had many and varied occupations in his life: Bartender, therapist/counsellor, house painter, manager of a high-end New York restaurant, DJ in a hip-hop nightclub, owner of a hugely — if, sadly, only briefly — successful line of clothing shops (many of the clothes he designed himself), freelance process server (one who delivers legal writs). He is also a talented writer. Once he wrote a short story while working a tedious office job; he had a ready-made ‘memo’ on his computer to which he could scroll in case the boss hove into sight — “Dear Jim, it has come to my attention that...”

Most people think of the five-line, usually funny, and often bawdy poetic form when they hear the word ‘limerick’. Did the poetic form take its name from the city? Nobody seems to know for sure. Matthew Potter, author of The Curious Story of the Limerick, has a theory that the form takes its name from two 18th-century Limerick poets, Sean O Tuama and Aindreas MacCraith. In the later 19th century, many people, especially in Britain, defended the claim that Edward Lear, artist, illustrator and writer of nonsense poetry including The Owl and the Pussycat, had invented the form; certainly, he wrote a good many limericks, though not always presented in five lines. Potter suggests that the poet WB Yeats, a leading figure in the Irish Literary Revival, attempted to reclaim the form from Lear and for the Limerick poets — one strategy, I suppose, of resistance to colonial rule.

Dermot Dix is an educator and historian based in Ireland

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Published on July 31, 2020
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